HOUSTON -- Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien has long said a key for a young player is the jump between the first and second year, and for his star pupil -- quarterback Deshaun Watson -- that step forward will be especially important.
A year ago, Watson was learning the playbook and hearing his coach say time and time again Tom Savage was the Texans starter. Although Watson was improving through the offseason program and training camp, O'Brien said -- at least publicly -- that the rookie quarterback was competing for a backup spot. Now, though Watson is rehabbing from a torn right ACL, the Texans are building their offense around him.
"I'm light-years away from where I was last year, coming in as a rookie," Watson said. "Everything was going so fast, a lot of information at that time. But having a full season and offseason with coach OB [O'Brien] and coach Sean Ryan, being able to advance my game and take my game to another level, it's been great."
Student of the game
Perhaps the most important step Watson has taken from Year 1 to Year 2 is his knowledge of opposing defenses: different techniques from defensive backs or what each defensive look means. That knowledge will help him know what is coming when the ball is snapped, leading to quicker decisions. O'Brien and Ryan, the quarterbacks coach, have worked on it with Watson in the classroom with film, tests, communication and board work.
"I don't think you can really be as successful as you want to be at that position unless you have a real good understanding of defensive football," O'Brien said. "I think that you have to obviously know your playbook, you have to know your offense, you have to know everything from the cadence to formations, to motions, to the plays, to protections, to everything. But at the end of the day, you have to know how the defense is going to line up against your offense.
"You have to really study that. It takes a lot of work. Nobody masters that in one year. Nobody masters that really ever, because defense is always evolving now, just like offense is. We spent a lot of time on that, and hopefully that shows up in the fall."
Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins said Watson's extra studying has shown this offseason and during organized team activities, even as the second-year quarterback has been working his way back from his ACL tear. Hopkins said he has noticed Watson is not "just coming out and making the plays that he naturally can do" -- something the Texans already know is a strength -- but is "studying defenses" and "being a student of the game."
"Just the conversations we have in between workouts and just warming up, it's constantly going over defenses, talking about what we can do to get better," Hopkins said. "I definitely can see him wanting to be the best."
Watson was one of the best in the seven games he played in before he needed season-ending surgery last November. At the time of his injury, his 19 passing touchdowns were tied with Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz for the NFL lead. Watson was also on pace to shatter the record for touchdown passes by a rookie quarterback (26).
Becoming a leader
Off the field, O'Brien has seen Watson "grow as a person." The transition from college life to the responsibilities and self-motivation necessary to succeed in the NFL is sometimes a problem for rookies. That was not the case for Watson, whom Ryan called a "young professional."
"[Watson] has a consistent, daily approach," O'Brien said. "He's in the building every morning at 6 a.m. He's taking care of his body. He's eating correctly. He's in the meetings. He's focused in the meetings. He's ready to go. He has good ideas. There's good interaction in the meetings, and he's come out here on the field and been able to do what he can do.
"Obviously, training camp will be a big period of time for all of us, especially for he and I moving forward through getting into 11-on-11, full pads, but he's had a good spring."
That growth has shown on the field, too. Now that Watson is cemented as the Texans starter -- and O'Brien has tweaked the offense to his QB's strengths -- he is looking to take on even more of a leadership role.
"On the field, of course, being the starter, coming into the offseason, into a new season [it's different], and being able to lead guys around me, and continue to take their games to another level as I take mine," Watson said.
What if Watson can stay healthy and play in 16 games with Hopkins in this offense? The All-Pro receiver, who caught 96 passes last season even though Watson missed more than half the games, said he is excited about the potential.
"I think we can be the best in this league," Hopkins said. "I think he can be the best quarterback. I know I can be the best wide receiver. And that's our mindset coming into the season.
"It gives me chills sometimes just to think what we did in the little time we had together, but seeing him mature -- not just on the field but off the field -- I can't wait."